On his deathbed yesterday, top US diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s final words were: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Well, that’s what the world’s media reported. It was the perfect final soundbite for the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a man who spent four decades at the centre of American power.

But then came a later story by the Washington Post, reporting that the quote was taken out of context. It was just witty banter between Holbrooke and his doctor, “rather than as a serious exhortation about policy.” As Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung report in The Washington Post:

As Dr. Jehan El-Bayoumi was attending to Holbrooke in the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital, she told him to relax and asked what she could do to comfort him, according to an aide who was present. Holbrooke, who was in severe pain, said jokingly that it was hard to relax because he had to worry about the difficult situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

El-Bayoumi, an Egyptian-American internist who is Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s physician, replied that she would worry for him. Holbrooke responded by telling her to end the war, the aide said.

Regardless of the ending, his death, following surgery for a torn aorta, resulted in a flood of tributes from US officials.

President Obama declared Holbrooke “a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer and more respected”. Current Secretary of State — a position Holbrooke dearly wanted, but never held — Hillary Clinton released a statement saying the US “has lost one of its fiercest champions and most dedicated public servants.”

Holbrooke served under every Democratic president from John F. Kennedy to Obama in a lengthy career that began with a foreign service posting in Vietnam in 1962 after graduating from Brown University, and included time as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam.

His “sizable ego, tenacity and willingness to push hard for diplomatic results won him both admiration and animosity”, reports MSNBC.

Holbrooke helped broker the Bosnian peace agreement in 1995. During his involvement with the Aghanistan war he regularly expressed doubts about its success, the number of troops involved in the recent surge and future problems with insurgents.

HDS Greenway recounts a recent conversation he had with Holbrooke about his concerns for the Afghanistan War in Global Post:

Although upbeat in public, in private he was not at all sure that Obama’s surge, or Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy, were going to work. “The war won’t end with a military victory,” he said. “We all know that. Even Petraeus admits that. But there is no agreement on how it will end… In Vietnam, in Serbia, you knew which phone to pick up to end the war,” he said. “But given the fractured nature of the Taliban, we don’t have a phone number. That is unique in American history.”

But will his death affect the war in Afghanistan? Legal adviser of Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, Nasrullah Stanikzai says no: “His death will not have an impact on the situation in Afghanistan at all… He was paying more attention to Pakistan and India rather than Afghanistan.” Holbrooke came out against the corrupt Afghanistan elections, while most other US government officials kept their frustrations silent.

Holbrooke was known for his direct manner, but “that did not always play well in the Afghan capital, an intricate knot of political, ethnic, tribal and religious complications each requiring their own delicate touch,” argue Paul Tait and Chris Albritton from Reuters. Holbrooke’s death leaves “a worrying gap” in the Obama administration and its dealings with Pakistan and Afghanistan, declares Andrew Quinn from Reuters.

The Taliban released a statement on its English-language website noting the phenomena of politicians and presidents, including during the Soviet war with Afghanistan, who struggle with stress and heart issues when they interfere with Afghanistan: “They relieved themselves of the hard task of the Afghan mission by retreating into the lap of death…We believe Holbrooke’s timely death could have a didactic effect on the American strategists, teaching them many things to learn.”

Blake Hounshell at Foreign Policy queries whether personal problems between Obama and Holbrooke — Holbrooke asked Obama to call him “Richard” not “Dick”, Obama recounted the strange anecdote to many — affected war policy: “…one has to wonder: If Holbrooke and Obama had gotten along better,” writes Hounshell, “or if Clinton had been less guarded in her own views, would history be playing out differently?”

Der Spiegel, who called Holbrooke a real-life version of The Quiet American, finished its obit with this analogy:

“The fact that his aorta ruptured during a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — which triggered multiple operations before his passing on Monday — is reminiscent of a soldier dying in the field. And as sad as it sounds, it may also be a fitting analogy to the US involvement in Afghanistan: A determined and energetic fight, but with little to show.”

Peter Fray

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